On the way to the airport alone in the very stretch limo, which had turned out to be the hotel’s version of a door-to-door shuttle, I scan the houses, loping roads, long slow horizon, the open bowl of the all-visible sky, and say the name “Chicago” with a shiver of pleasure, as if the actual city lay there in its announcement — which is true insofar as before this week I’d never been to Chicago, had only this verbal gesture, an echo of the architecture of a song I can’t remember the words to, though I try to sing it a little to myself in the car, and can’t exactly remember the melody either: it segues into “San Francisco” as if Judy Garland were doing a medley, while the Pakistani limo driver quizzes me about my impressions of the city, seeming particularly interested in delivering his own contradictory responses.
The downtown is handsome, carefully made, with a buoyant spaciousness unlike any other city I’ve seen, I tell him, and he agrees, but there’s a mournfulness in his voice as his running description passes beyond the city limits, and a near-hysteria I detect in the torque of his ache as he complains, “It’s all flat, ugly, so flat. You go for miles — ugly flat country, flat, flat. To find the beautiful place” — he shakes his head — “you have to drive six hours! All flat, flat.”
I look at the far views from each side of the limo to register the flatness he moans of, and it’s true you can see as far as you can see in every direction: from the slight lift of the highway the sleek horizon is unpimpled by structures or trees; the sky is voluminous, noisy with clouds, an undiminished hemisphere. Gazing, I mouth to myself the other captured word that Kate used yesterday: ‘prairie.’ ‘The Prairie.’ I visualize miles of whispering grasses, acres of pure direction.
“What’s the difference between The Great Plains and The Prairie?” I’d asked; neither of us was really sure. I told Kate about my one trip to Kansas City a few years back, when Richard had taken me to a scenic bluff overlooking the Missouri river. Behind the cliff top was an undulant Kansas City, MO, neighborhood, and just back of that pleasant, rolling, tree-filled districts Richard had driven me through; in front of us, westward, was a sheer drop to the river, and then a stretching, perfectly flat plateau, and then Kansas City, KS, just in the distance, a hat on a rug. I’d thought to myself, “Now begins the Great Plains. I’m literally standing with my back to the Midwest and East Coast, but from my feet on out it’s the Great Plains right to the Rockies!”
I slept through geography so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of my coordinates, but I do know the Great Plains lived in my speaking as if my mind had been suddenly unfettered, loosed from an unknown band, and I flooded west spreading till I couldn’t see a way to stop, as far as my flying eyes could lift me, balanced as I was on the literal pitch of the vast continent’s inner lip.
I take with me back to San Francisco this new matching set, two palpable phrases ready to burst — The Great Plains, The Prairie — with a feeling I can shut and open these magic boxes at will, and scoot myself out of my apartment walls in lonely emergency, to breathe-in the curative powers of space and scale. “O flots abracadabrantesques,” Rimbaud addresses the sea he’s conjured, “Prenez mon coeur, qu’il soit lavé!” “O abracadabric waves, take my heart and cleanse it.”
The sea unfolds.